Archive for December, 2008

“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

December 29, 2008

Today is a favorite feast day of mine: St. Thomas Becket.  That probably has to do with the fact that, back in the day, I used to watch the classic movie every year on this day. 

I was always struck by the Becket portrayed by the movie: not so admirable perhaps in faith, but a hero of the simple virtue of integrity.  The guy was given a job to do, handed a responsibility.  It wasn’t one that he asked for, and not even one that he was particularly suited to.  But dammit, he was going to live up to its responsibilities, whatever it took.  He was entrusted with a family to look after (the Church, that is), and he died looking after it.

Nowadays I still try to watch it this day, but I’m rarely able.  We’re on the road visiting family this year, for example.  So I’ll settle for the original trailer for the film. 

 (It was produced in 1964 — right on the edge of the changes in society that would make the production of such a movie all but unthinkable just a handful of years later.  In fact, just by viewing the trailer you can already see signs of using sex to snatch people’s interest in selling the movie.)

If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, consider watching it today.  Either way, take a moment to invoke his prayers:

St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!



December 29, 2008

Between Churches and Worried About Security, Obama Misses Out On Religious Services

by John McCormick, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HONOLULU — – Barack Obama has long stressed the importance of religion in his life.

But as his fellow Christians around the world attended Christmas services on Wednesday and Thursday, the president-elect and his family remained sequestered at their vacation compound on the windward coast of Oahu.

His lack of attendance at formal religious services showcased a dilemma faced by Obama, who is between churches and often also expresses concern about bringing the disruption of his security detail into the lives of others.

Still, he has not attended a public church service since before being elected.

But then part of me says, at least he’s not doing it for show.  He’s open about what’s important to him and what’s not, without trying to pretend or go through the motions for the sake of our approval.  (How very admirable.)

UPDATE: He did find time to spend an hour in the gym on Sunday. No concern, apparently, for disrupting things there.

Peggy Noonan on Mother Teresa

December 28, 2008

I’m a pretty big Peggy Noonan fan.  I have been since she produced a series of truly extraordinary columns that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in the weeks and months following the 9/11/01 attacks (like this one, for example).  So I’ve paid fairly close attention to her work since then.

Her most recent column features a run-down of the books she read during 2008.  (She seems to share the same quirky habit I have — keeping a running list of books read.)  One of them, and the one she spends the most time on in the column, is Fr. Joseph Langford’s Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire,  published this fall by OSV Books (which is, by the way, running a free shipping sale right now).  

Fr. Langford’s book is on my wish list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.  Noonan’s column has whetted my appetite a bit more.  After going through a series of interesting books that were on her reading list this year, Noonan writes:

None of these books were more important in the end than a modest and unheralded book called “Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire” by Joseph Langford, a priest of her Missionaries of Charity and her close friend of many years. You wouldn’t think there’s much new to say here, but there is. Everyone knows that as a young nun in Calcutta, Mother Teresa, then Sister Teresa, left her convent, with only five rupees in her pocket, in order to work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of the city. But what made her do this?

On Sept. 10, 1946, on a train to Darjeeling, on her way to a spiritual retreat, she had, as Father Langford puts it, “an overwhelming experience of God.” This is known. But its nature? It was not “some dry command to ‘work for the poor,'” he says, but something else, something more monumental. What? For many years, she didn’t like to speak of what happened, or interpret it. So the deepest meaning of her message remained largely unknown. Says Father Langford, “What was deepest in her . . . is still a mystery even to her most ardent admirers. But it was not her wish that this secret remain forever unknown.”

In this book, based on her letters, writings and conversations, he tells of how she came to serve “the least, the last, and the lost,” not as a female Albert Schweitzer but as “a mystic with sleeves rolled up.” Father Langford tells the story of her encounter on the train, of what was said, of what she heard, and of the things he learned from her including, most centrally, this: You must find your own Calcutta. You don’t have to go to India. Calcutta is all around you.

It’s better than I’m saying. But this is a good time to have Mother Teresa’s life in mind, and to remember, perhaps, that all can change, that a life—and a world—can be made better all of a sudden, out of the blue, unexpectedly. But you have to be listening. You have to be able to hear.

Check out the full column, “A Year for the Books.”

“Marley & Me”: Parents Take Note

December 27, 2008

Something wasn’t right in the first place about the the fact that Jennifer Anniston is appearing in a kids’ movie the same month she’s appearing nude on the pages of GQ.  And since she did, I’m not sure I’d jump at having my kids see her new movie, Marley & Me, anyway, just on principle. 

This doesn’t have much to do with the standard topics usually covered on this blog.  But I was glad I read this column by an film critic (Drudge linked to it) before I rented the movie. (It’s still in theaters now, but since we so rarely go to the theater with our kids, we’d be much more likely to rent it eventually.)  So I thought other parents out there also might appreciate the “heads up,” too.  (And note: This does reveal the ending of the movie.)


A word of warning to parents out there who have been seduced by the adorable-puppy-in-Christmas-bow advertising of “Marley & Me” and are considering taking their youngsters to see it: Don’t. The dog — and this may technically count as a spoiler, even though the movie is based on a best-selling book — dies. And “Marley & Me” milks audience grief (and will traumatize children) more than “Bambi” and “Old Yeller” combined.


It’s not that “Marley & Me” doesn’t come by its tears honestly, but once you get beyond “see the nice doggie, see the nice doggie die,” there’s not a whole lot going on here.

Entire column is here.

Christmas: A Marian season, too

December 26, 2008

A small news item from an Italian news service, citing a recent Vatican bulletin, notes some small novelties in the way Christmas liturgies will be celebrated at the Vatican this year.  It makes a point worth reflecting on as we move into the beautiful Christmas season:

The polychrome wooden sculpture of the enthroned Virgin holding the Baby Jesus giving a blessing, for example, will be located before the altar of the confession [the main altar in the Basilica], from Christmas Day until Epiphany.  This will serve to emphasize “that the Christmas season is also a Marian season.”

That is, it is a liturgical season which has a strong Marian element to it. 

We see this reflected not only in Mary’s obviously central role at the Nativity itself, which we celebrate on Christmas, but also in the Feast of the Holy Family on the following Sunday; the Feast of Mary, Mother of God on January 1; and also her attentive presence at the visit of the Magi, which we remember on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

(Note: I’ve seen this news item translated in English elsewhere as saying that the Mary statue will be near St. Peters’ main altar from Christmas to Epiphany, “not only on the feast of the Mother of God.”  But the original [“La scultura lignea policroma che raffigura la Vergine in trono con il Bambino benedicente, ad esempio, sarà collocata accanto all’altare della confessione, dal giorno di Natale fino all’Epifania. Servirà a sottolineare ‘come il tempo natalizio sia un tempo anche mariano’.” ] says more than this.  My translation reflects this.)

St. Nick in Time

December 26, 2008

Now St. Nicholas makes Time magazine’s website!  The full  St. Nicholas timeline there includes this:

circa 280 A.D.Nicholas is born in Patara, Lycia — part of modern day Turkey. Like others of the Emperor Constantine generation, he enters a life of religious servitude. He works his way up from abbot to the archbishop of Myra — a nearby town — and gets his first nickname: Nicholas of Myra.

325 A.D. Nicholas attends the First Council of Nicaea and helps create the Nicene Creed, which millions upon millions of Sunday School children will later memorize. Tip: children who mention this in their annual letter to Santa receive an average of 3 extra toys.

330 A.D. When a father doesn’t have enough money for his three daughters’ dowries, dooming them, apparently, to forced prostitution, Nicholas leaves three bags of gold outside the girls’ home (or, according to a different version of the story, in their shoes) to keep them from having to pull an Ashley Alexander Dupre. This is one of the few stories based on some sort of historical record and it explains Nicholas’ reputation as a gift-giver.

320-340 A.D. Nicholas becomes famous for performing great miracles. Once he saves a ship from a terrible storm by calming the waves. Another time, he flies through the air to return a kidnapped boy. And most impressive of all, he discovers a triple homicide and brings the victims — three children who had been chopped into bits and stored in pickle jars — back to life. Compared to this, making an Xbox by hand is probably child’s play.

Dec. 6, 343 A.D. Nicholas dies and is buried in Myra.

6th Century A.D. Nicholas becomes a saint. The Catholic Church had not yet regulated its canonization procedure so it’s hard to tell exactly when he is sainted. Nicholas is a very popular saint, especially in Europe. He becomes the patron of more objects and places than any other saint (except maybe Mary), although his primary role is as a guardian of children.

1087 Some Italian sailors steal Nicholas’ remains and transfer them to Bari, Italy. Nicholas likes his new home — well, he doesn’t complain — and his tomb becomes a major pilgrimage site.

Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2008

049“The trees in the cities and in our homes should be something more than a festive custom: they point to the One who is the reason for our joy – the God who for our sake became a child. In the end, this song of praise, at the deepest level, speaks of him who is the very tree of new-found life. Through faith in him we receive life. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist he gives himself to us – he gives us a life that reaches into eternity. At this hour we join in creation’s song of praise, and our praise is at the same time a prayer: Yes, Lord, help us to see something of the splendour of your glory. And grant peace on earth. Make us men and women of your peace.”

— Pope Benedict XVI, homily at Midnight Mass, Christmas 2008

Martyr for the Environment

December 24, 2008

There have been hints that respect for the environment will take a more prominent place in Catholic social teaching in the years ahead.  Certainly Pope Benedict has mentioned it a few times

If it does, we may be hearing more about Sr. Dorothy Stang.  In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine her invoked as a sort of patron of the teaching and the cause.

Sr. Dorothy, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur, is considered by some to be the first Catholic martyr who died for the cause of respect for the environment.  She was murdered in 2005 in Brazil, after receiving many death threats, because of her opposition to deforestation around the Amazon. 

Earlier this month, on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Sr. Dorothy was posthumously awarded a major United Nations human rights award.

Now Sr. Dorothy is mentioned in a new New York Times article, reporting newly proposed legislation in Brazil aimed at reducing deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions.  The article, which features more prominently another martyr for the deforestation cause, notes:

The killings of Mr. Mendes and of Sister Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old Catholic nun who was gunned down in 2005 for speaking out against logging in the Amazon, ratcheted up international pressure on Brazil to find ways to limit forest clearing without sacrificing development.

“Brazil was always on the defensive when it came to the question of climate change,” said Carlos Minc, Brazil’s environment minister. “And now it has completely changed, passing a bolder plan than India and China.”

Mr. Minc said the plan would help meet a demand of some of the more developed countries, including the United States, which has said it would not agree to firm emissions targets until less-developed countries that produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases do the same.

Moving Marguerite

December 23, 2008

A very interesting and somewhat sad article went up today on the impending move of the remains of St. Marguerite D’Youville.  She’s presently under the altar of the main chapel of the Montreal motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity (better known as the Grey Nuns), the order she founded. 


“It’s dramatic – a congregation that did so much through hospitals, charity work, with the poor. Now there is no one new to replace them. They are heading toward extinction.”

Once the pillars of Quebec’s health and education systems, nuns are dying off. The average age of the sisters shuffling along on walkers at the Grey Nuns Motherhouse is 82; the youngest is 61.

Their motherhouse, on prime downtown property at Guy Street and René Lévesque Boulevard, has been sold to Concordia University.

“We wouldn’t have wanted to leave Marguerite d’Youville here,” said the 79-year-old Mother Superior, Sister Cécile Castonguay, who has reluctantly accepted to say goodbye to the convent she’d first entered as a student in 1945.

And so St. Marguerite’s remains are being moved to her birthplace, in Verennes, Quebec. 

One other sad aspect of this story is also a testament to the heroic history of St. Marguerite’s order.  There are 276 other sisters buried in the basement crypt, and they must all be left behind when the nuns move out:

After the sisters sold the property to Concordia, they had wanted to exhume the bodies and transfer them to a congregation cemetery in suburban Châteauguay. But provincial public-health authorities nixed the idea for fear of spreading disease; the women had cared for patients during typhus and smallpox epidemics in the 1800s.

“We would have liked them all to be reunited in Châteauguay, but we were told the viruses are so strong they remain alive underground,” Sister Castonguay said. “We accepted it. We are used to accepting change.”

If you’re not familiar with her, I’d enourage you to get acquainted with St. Marguerite D’Youville.  There’s a chapter devoted to her in my Saints for Our Times.  Doing the research and writing the biographical summary and particularly the novena to St. Marguerite for that book was a truly enriching experience, and ever since then I feel like I have a fond connection to her.  It’s sad to read that the order she founded seems to be in its twilight.

St. Marguerite D’ Youville, pray for your sisters in religious life, for the Church, and for us.

It must be St. Nick

December 22, 2008

A nice article on St. Nicholas is today’s “featured story” at Religion News Service. 

“St. Nicholas was a real person. Not a fairy, not someone who’s flying through the sky with reindeer, but an actual person who lived and worked and died and had a full life,” said Canon Jim Rosenthal. “He had a Christian life because he was actually a bishop, a pastor.”

Full article here.